Many people would like to get into the entertainment business, and many have tried and failed. One of those who has succeeded is the talented Darrin Dickerson. Having worked in almost every major part of film making, he has written, directed and produced movies, music videos and short films. Working behind the scenes for over a decade, Darrin Dickerson has said, “The strongest directors are those who can relate to their crews,” and that is relevant when you see how much he has learned from his many positions he has taken over the years.
It’s Just Movies got the chance to talk to Darrin Dickerson about his career, his influences and the process of working on his very first full-length feature film “D4.”
In “D4,” a squad of ex-military turned mercenaries is hired by a wealthy doctor to find and rescue her son who has been kidnapped. She believes he is being detained in an old abandoned military base deep in the woods, a place called “D4.” Thinking it’s just a routine rescue mission, the team takes the job and heads deep into the heart of the forest. Once there, they soon realize this facility isn’t going to be as easy to get into as they originally thought — they are being hunted and the rescue mission has turned into the fight of their lives.
It’s Just Movies: How did you get started off in filmmaking? Was it something that interested you when you were younger?
Darrin Dickerson: From the time I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with movies, and wanted to be an actor as far back as I can remember. When I was a young kid, I did school and community theatre. I was hired as an art director at an ad agency right out of high school, and worked there while I went to college in Advertising Design. This particular agency had a commercial production department, which I worked closely with, doing concept, writing and storyboards. I eventually started cross-training into that department, learning the process. I would work as a grip/electric on the commercial work coming through the agency and then would borrow the equipment on the weekends to do my own projects, experiment and basically self-teach. I soon left that agency for another and also began working grip/electric on some features being shot in Louisiana. I had applied to film school in Florida, was told I made it to the last cut, and then was turned down. Shortly after that, I was fortunate enough to work on a small independent film called “Schizopolis” being done by Steven Soderbergh. This was a defining moment for me. “Schizopolis” was a small film, the production style I was used to working…a few people all doing as much as they could and getting it done. I remember the first time I saw this award-winning director, loading mags by himself in the conference room of an ad agency we were using as a base camp. Steven is a very kind, soft spoken and confident person. During those few weeks, it hit me, and I remember thinking, “this is just a normal guy from Louisiana, just like me.” That experience with Steven and that handful of guys cemented it for me. It showed me that it could be done and it didn’t have to go through the mysterious Hollywood machine. I was encouraged by those guys to do my own thing, instead of pursuing a film school or graduate program, to instead invest that money in making my own films…that was the best advice I have ever been given.
IJM: You are involved in many different aspects of filmmaking, including writing, producing, starring and directing. If you could only do one, which would it be and why?
DD: I would say acting first, then directing a very close second. It’s an incredible amount of fun to pretend to be somebody else, to play guns, good guy/bad guy…I love the acting part of it.
IJM: How do you think your style has changed and evolved from your first short film “The Widowmaker” in 2000 (which was only 24 minutes long) to now with “D4,” which is a full-length feature film?
DD: To follow up on the first question, those short films were my schooling. Over a period of five or six years, I slowly pulled together my own equipment and I made six short films. The intent was to experiment with different formats, techniques and people and learn. From a visual and content standpoint, I don’t think much has changed. I lean towards darker subject matter and certainly towards a darker, grungier look. What I think, and hope, has changed is the execution and production quality. As with anything, the more you do it, the better you should get at it. I hope that is the case. I hope to keep learning and searching and making movies that each gets a little better.
IJM: Your films seem to have either a strong emotional impact or psychological effect. Is this something you strive for when writing or is that just your style?
DD: I think it’s just my style. I don’t usually make a conscious decision in that direction, that just seems to be where my mind goes. I’m a fairly emotional person myself, and when I write that seems to surface.
IJM: What was your favorite film genre growing up, and do you think it had an impact on your films now?
DD: I always liked the action adventure and sci-fi genres as a kid, and even now. When I got a little older, I gravitated to the darker films. Two of my all time favorites are “Seven” and “The Road,” if that gives you an idea.
IJM: You have starred in many of your films. When writing, do you design a character with yourself in mind?
DD: Usually, yes. I’ve always wanted to be an actor, and making my own films was a way to make that happen. As I said before, I don’t like to be told I can’t do something.
IJM: Does your style of directing differentiate when you’re in front of the camera acting as opposed to when you are not in the film or scene?
DD: I don’t think so. It’s just a little more stress on my mind to make sure everybody else has what they need, make sure everything is moving in the right direction and at the same time transition into whatever scene I’m supposed to be in. I’m a big believer in preparation. Plan, plan, plan. If you figure it out ahead of time and you and your team are ready to go, it should just be paint by numbers when you get ready to shoot.
IJM: What would you say is the most challenging aspect of movie-making in your opinion?
DD: Getting it out there for people to see. I remember someone telling me, “once you’ve got your film done, the hardest part is over, the rest is easy.” Not true. The hardest part is getting it in front of people and avoiding the pitfalls of this industry along the way.
IJM: How did you come up with the idea for “D4”? At the core of “D4,” it deals with epilepsy. Is this disease one that has affected you or someone you know?
DD: In May of 2007, after having several seizures, my oldest son (5 at the time) was diagnosed as having epilepsy, and put on medication. The first drug administered had terrifying side effects, which became the basis for the sci-fi/horror angle and the birth of the beast in “D4.” My son’s illness is minor compared to other diseases, and thus far, successfully controlled with medication. However, it was still a major change in our lives and extremely stressful for his mother and I, especially the mind-altering side effects we witnessed while trying to find the proper medication and the reservations and unfounded guilt I personally felt during that process. The two years following those seizures aged me more than anything in my life thus far. This movie became my therapy for dealing with the uncertainties and new stresses we were staring in the face. Everything in this script somehow came from our journey through this new territory. I took our experiences with my son, our conversations, the office visits, the stress and confusion of the real life experience, then twisted it into a sci-fi action thriller. Most of the script was motivated in some way by my boy’s experience. The dialogue with the neurologists in the film is for the most part word for word from the visits to our doctors. “D4” was made on a very, very small budget. The hope is through sales of the DVD to recoup those minor expenses then apply a portion of any profits made to help with epilepsy awareness for other parents who may be taken off guard by this beast.
IJM: I loved the opening of the film; it really pushes the viewer right into the story without really knowing what the story is yet. Did you do that on purpose?
DD: Yes, that was my intention and is how most of my films have started. I like to get right to it.
IJM: How did the casting of this film come together? Was it open call or did you have people in mind already for the parts when you wrote the script? Where did you find “Big” Mike Ulm? He is humongous and scary, perfectly cast as The Beast.
DD: I wrote a few of the characters with people in mind, actors who had worked with me before. We then did an open call for the other parts and held several call backs as we narrowed it down. As for the Beast, yes, it was written with Big Mike in mind. I’d known Mike from the gym for several years, and always had him in the back of my mind for when the right opportunity came along. Yes, he is that big in real life. The only CGI on Mike is to his mouth when he screams…all the muscle is all Mike.
IJM: How did you come up with the sound design for “The Beast”? I absolutely love the primal sounds of a human mixed in with the animalistic sounds. It made for a very creepy effect.
DD: Thank you. I’m quite proud of the Beast voice. As with a lot of this film, I ended up having to take it on myself simply because of budget. Over the last two years, I’ve taught myself four different programs and spent countless hours finishing out this film. Sound design was one of the areas I leant a hand, and the Beast voice was something I tackled myself. The Beast’s voice was something I knew from the start had to be strong. The way you described it is exactly right, I wanted it have a human air to it, but be more animal than human. I used Mike’s voice from set as reference, but very little of his actual voice ended up in the final cut. It’s a mixture of many different animals and obscure sounds. I found a basic structure for his voice and then added to or took away from it depending on his mood and action at the time. Designing the Beast voice was quite a task, but one that I feel came off like it needed to.
IJM: I loved the locations shot in the film — the untamed forest and woods. How did you find those locations or did you write the story with those spots in mind?
DD: My parents own a bit of land in the mountains of East Tennessee. I wrote the script around their place and other locations in the little town where they live. This was also a conscious decision because of budget.
IJM: What’s next for you? More full-length features?
DD: Yes, I have three more feature length scripts written. Just a matter of when and where…I’m ready to go.
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Having seen “D4,” I can say that this is a fun and suspenseful action movie with an important subject at its core. Beautifully shot and directed, “D4” is sure to thrill and excite audiences. Seeing Darrin Dickerson’s work and learning more about him has been a pleasure and an inspiration to me. No matter who or where you are, you can make your dreams a reality if you put in the effort.
There are many ways that you can learn more about Darrin Dickerson, “D4” or the production company “Ghost Water Films”:
Go to www.ghostwater.com
Purchase “D4” at www.7-7-10.com
Go to Netflix and put “D4” in your rental queue at www.netflix.com/Movie/70144527?trkid=73
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Follow Adam Poynter on Twitter at http://twitter.com/CCWGGuy.